I had hoped to meet Remamy during this visit to Madagascar. However, he died during the visit, apparently from heart problems exacerbated by trying to deal with kidney stones. So, instead, I attended his funeral.
Why, you might ask, would I attend the funeral of a Malagasy man whom I had never met?
Remamy was an important figure. I first encountered him while reading Rev Patsy McGregor’s book “Tamana – at home in Africa”. The book tells of what it meant for her to give up the relative comfort of running a retreat center in Kenya and return to Madagascar, the 11th poorest country in the world, and live in Ankilifaly, one of the poorer parts of town in Toliara. She and Todd were returning to Madagascar at the invitation of the Anglican Church in Madagascar for Todd to become the bishop of a newly-created diocese. Until they moved to their present location, Todd and Patsy’s home was a tiny upstairs apartment in Ankilifaly that they nicknamed “The Box”. Sue and I visited it in 2014. It is minuscule; the phrase “you couldn’t swing a cat in it” is almost literally true.
Two views from "the Box"
The Box overlooks St Lioka’s (St Luke's) church, and also the latrines at the end of the backyard of the home occupied by Remamy and his family. Remamy was the local shaman. In Madagascar, a shaman is responsible for the rites of the traditional Malagasy religion. A major part of this role consists of blessing people at all the major rites of passage of life and death. In Madagascar at least, the role of shamans is therefore quite different from that of witch doctors, the latter often being involved in invoking curses.
Rev Patsy mentored Remamy’s daughter, Nolavy, who had become a Christian. Nolavy is a talented young woman, and desired to study to be an Evangelist and to go to Kenya to take a theological degree before returning to Madagascar.
Nolavy, Remamy's daughter
Nolavy came to Rev Patsy in great distress because her father had forbade her to study to be an Evangelist. He wanted her to go to Antananarivo instead and to get a job there and send back money for the extended family. Nolavy’s and Patsy’s prayers were answered within days, when Remamy visited the McGregors to announce that he was ceding spiritual authority over Nolavy to Bishop Todd, and she could study to be an Evangelist. When I read of this incident, I was so struck by what a remarkably generous and gracious act it was for someone of Remamy’s background that I decided I would like to meet him and to tell him that I honored him for it.
Shortly before our visit to Madagascar this year, Remamy had a dream of leading his wife into a church packed with people. He invited Bruce and Shay Mason (friends from our 2015 visit, whose 2016 visit slightly preceded ours) to visit him and his family at his home. There, Remamy invited them to pray for his back pains, and to help him forgive others for various hurts. Remamy promptly felt much better, and surprised all those present by declaring that he now wished to become a Christian. This was a remarkable step; after all, it is not often that a leader in one religion converts to quite different faith. Moreover, it would have massive mundane consequences for Remamy and his extended family; as a Christian he would no longer be able to conduct shamanic rites, and would therefore no longer derive the income with which he supported his extended family, including nearly twenty who ate at his table each day.
(A fuller account of Remamy’s conversion can be found at Bruce and Shay’s blog: www.healingspring.org/a-shamans-journey-to-jesus)
About ten days later, Remamy was admitted to a local hospital with kidney stones. Each evening he would discuss with his wife, with Nolavy and her Kenyan husband Victor, and others, how to reallocate responsibilities for the extended family, and prayed with them as a Christian. A few days later, he died.
His funeral was held at St Lioka’s. This must have been a seismic event in the local community – the shaman had become a Christian and the rite of passage for his death was a Christian service. Hundreds attended, roughly half of them Christian, and half adherents of traditional Malagasy religion, overflowing the building into the courtyard outside. Bishop Todd preached, drawing on the Jewish Passover tradition to speak of the sweetness and bitterness of life, recounting his relationship with Remamy, and noting that in his last days Remamy’s dream was of bringing others into the Christian church.
St Lioka's, Ankilifaly
After the service, Remamy’s coffin was strapped to the top of a minibus crammed with close relatives and, accompanied by a rented taxi-brousse (long-distance bus) jam-packed with further relatives, was driven away so that his body could be interred in the family mausoleum some fifty miles away.
The coffin atop a minibus
The rented taxi-brousse